A Productivity Tip for Parents and their Creative Projects

A year into this motherhood gig, I don't feel I am any of the things I wanted to be at this stage - confident, in control, slim enough to wear a burkini in public, let alone a bikini. Almost everyday I feel the scales are tipped too much in one direction (both in the bathroom and in my head!) and something is always neglected be it my writing, my freelance work or worst of all, my baby boy.

But, when I do have time to work, I get stuff done. I may not do as much as I would like, but I do more than I ever used to before I became a mother, which is surprising considering that I used to work 7 days a week, sometimes all day and often long into the night. Now, I have three days when my son is in daycare from around 9am until 4.30pm, and then I'm Chief Parenting Officer for two days before the weekend hits and his father and I share the duties. Because my son doesn't always sleep well at night - and because I'm nearly always exhausted by dinner time - I rarely work or write in the evenings, so outside of daycare days, it's like a constant game of Hungry Hippos as I try to grab as much time as I can to answer emails, work on my books or do some boring admin like pay bills or chase invoices.

That said, I think the following tip really applies to my books, which are my creative side project. If you're unfamiliar with my writing journey, I write and publish fiction. It's a very small business that I'm trying to slowly grow while also indulging all my creative whims and vices. As well as using it as an excuse to drink too much tea, and stare thoughtfully out of windows a lot. Oh, and people watching. I love that as a fiction author I can legitimately study strangers and be extremely nosey for "research purposes".

Anyway, back to being a Hungry Hippo...

What this mum-writer hustle has taught me is that it is possible to achieve a lot in ten stolen minutes as Baby Bird entertains himself with an empty water bottle (seriously, he will chase that thing up and down our corridor for hours... okay, several minutes, which is like hours in baby time) and although he's not a long napper, he now will have at least one nap that is 45 minutes or longer and again I often surprise myself how much I can get done in that time... if I sit my bum down and get on with it - which usually involves ignoring piles of washing (clean or dirty or both) and hiding my phone in the fridge.

That wasn't my top tip, by the way. That's just a bonus. This is my top productivity tip for busy, working parents.

Write to do lists

Oh, you were expecting something more intelligent? Sorry... But please read on because these aren't your normal to do lists.

Write project to do lists not daily to do lists 

Daily to do lists will always let you down if you're juggling parenting with working (i.e. have children at home with you). At least that is often my experience. A day at home with Baby Bird will never ever see me do all the things I hope to do. And while I want him to grow up knowing I'm a working mother, I don't want him to get used to seeing my head pop up from behind a laptop as he watches the twentieth episode of Fireman Sam on loop. It's all about that nasty "B word" (balance) that makes me want to shout other nasty B words at people who talk about managing to achieve it because I just can't... I refer you once again to my Hungry Hippos reference and I was never very good at playing that game.

So yep, forget the daily to do list. If you honestly think you can make a list of tasks each morning and tick them all off while also dealing with the constant roll of must-dos for your offspring, you are either crazy optimistic or you have a much calmer, cooler kid than me (should both of these be true - high five!). Daily to do lists work well when you are guaranteed zero interruptions other than those of your own making, like standing in front of an open fridge for twelve minutes. Children, however, are the masters of interruption be it waking up from a nap early, or deciding they want to be held all day long.

Now I write project to do lists, be it for a freelance job, for this blog, for my books or for anything else for that matter. This way I can simply write down which project I'd like to work in my diary and I begin begging/chanting/dancing/and offering up Capri-Sun's in honour of the Gods of Child Meltdowns that they spare me for some thirty minutes or so during the next ten hours.

Break your tasks down into as many teeny tiny steps as you can.

The photo below is a recent to do list for my next novella, which will be a follow-up for The Wait. I have several other to do lists for actually finishing the book's content, but the other tasks are ones I can do while I'm still working on that during daycare days or when Baby Bird's father takes over for an afternoon or so.

If you're working on larger projects, I find this is the only way to really get them done. Break your project to do list down into as many tasks as you can - the smaller the better.  I can do some of these tasks in just a few minutes and get a step closer to completing the overall goal without worrying about the interruptions that will happen. Because, oh yes, them interruptions are gonna happen. 

Give each task an estimated time.

If you add an estimated time needed to complete each individual task you will start to see what can be done in those bonus five or ten minutes you can grab when your kid is playing happily by themself (although you know this has a very short shelf-life!) and what needs to wait for naptime, after bedtime, or for a time when someone else is in charge of their care, preferably someone you know as opposed to the random stranger you met in the park who wanted to squeeze Baby Bird's cheeks and you turn and did a runner as they did... I'm kidding, but I'd be lying if I said the thought didn't cross my mind.

Don't spend ages on this. If it helps, do what I do and think more in terms of when I can do the work rather than how long. I now assign just three numbers to tasks; 10, 30 and 60. Hopefully it's clear what these mean but in parenting language this also translates as 10 - things I can do when Baby Bird is otherwise occupied for give or take around ten minutes, 30 - things I can do during his naptime, and 60 - things that will take longer than an hour and therefore need to wait for a daycare day.

Colour code, if needed, or if you like playing with highlighters.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to then take this a logical step further and start to use coloured highlighters to give an instant overview of which tasks are for which times. This helps me pick a task quickly and just crack on with it, rather than have a lengthy inner debate about what I should do next, something I am most excellent at doing.

Another top tip, pick colours you like, because you'll be seeing these colours a lot. That's why the green highlighter and I had to part ways. Now I'm happy with my hippy trippy, Sixties choice of orange, pink and yellow.

Don't panic and keep on doing you.

Of course, this doesn't always work. Sometimes I get stuck. Often a task I thought would take ten minutes ends up needing longer than an hour. Or I work through all of my shorter tasks and I'm stuck on a Thursday waiting for Monday to roll around so I have a daycare day to crack on with the longer tasks, but I've started to see this as a good thing as it means I've done what I can on a project and so I can then think about something else. (Yes, like my child, but I'll be honest and say it's rare I don't have any small tasks I can do and it's amazing how much more sane I feel when I do a few of these each day... or one every few days.) Some weeks I'm so busy working on a freelance project that the project To Do lists for my books, blog and other bits and bobs, don't see the light of day for ages. And other days I still choose standing in front of an open fridge over getting some work done. That's just the way it goes.

My point with these tips is: be realistic. Get organised and give yourself a good start, but don't overstretch yourself. Don't overdo it. And don't beat yourself up when stuff doesn't get done, because if you're a parent, you're always getting stuff done. ALWAYS. I'm in awe of people who run full-time businesses/jobs from home when they're also with their children. In the same way I'm amazed at those who work full-time but then run a side business or creative project. I wish I had that focus and commitment... but becoming a mother is slowly making me realise I already have a full-time job and even if I never did another day or hour or minute of freelance work or writing, I would still be working harder than I ever have. Parenting is demanding and time-consuming. However, I need to work not only to contribute financially to my family, but also (and perhaps more importantly) I need to do other things to keep sane. I like feeling useful in more than one way and I really do need a creative outlet, for want of a better, less cheesy and stomach curdling phrase. That's why I do what I can, when I can. And this system helps me achieve that. I hope it helps you too!

P.S. These photos feature pages from my Get to Work Book which I use as a diary and home for all my project task lists and brain dumps. It's great. And no, this isn't a sponsored post.

Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.

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